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Making a Citizen Arrest for a Traffic Violation

Contributors: Phil Coleman

From time to time, a story comes up within a group of cyclists where a motorist commits a traffic violation, creating a hazard for the cyclist. No law enforcement officer happened to be present, but the cyclist still wishes that the violator could be ticketed.

HandCuffsWhile law enforcement officers are legally empowered to cite suspected traffic violators as a matter of routine, the process for citizens to do the same is more difficult. Citizens, cyclists or otherwise, have two basic options under the law.

In the first instance, let’s assume the violator is available and an enforcing officer is present as well. Police do occasionally get hailed by a citizen and demand that a nearby motorist be cited. But the officer did not see the violation, thus has no authority to issue the citation based on personal observation. The citizen can demand that the officer write a citation, but first a legal standard of “probable cause” must be met.

The officer will question the complaining citizen on the particulars of the alleged violation. The officer is attempting to comply with the legal standard of “probable cause,” which is somewhat subjective in how the officer measures the complainant’s credibility. For example if the motorist alleged ran a stop sign, the probable cause standard is rather easily met. Anybody can recognize a stop sign violation. But if the alleged violator was speeding, the question arises on the ability of the complainant to correctly judge the speed of an automobile. Ultimately, it’s a judgment call for the officer to proceed further.

Suppose now that the probable cause standard has been met. Law enforcement policy varies on the next procedure. What follows reflects the current policy of the Davis Police Department and is typical of many law enforcement agencies, but by no means is it universal. Some departments simply will not take any action, citing excessive workload to perform any extraordinary service.

A Davis Police Officer will write the citation and note the name of the complainant on the form. The complainant will be told to respond to a subpoena should the violator challenge the citation. 

The second “citizen arrest” option emerges when the violator is not present when the complaint is made. The complaining citizen may have a license number and a vehicle and driver description. In Davis, the citizen may ask for a formal police report to be made, which in turn is forwarded to the Yolo District Attorney for further action. Again, some departments simply refuse to make a police report for a traffic violation.

When the Yolo District Attorney receives a complaint of a traffic violation from a citizen, he has full authority and discretion to charge the case or not. In the spirit of full disclosure, district attorney offices everywhere review such cases with skepticism and prosecution is rare.

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